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Poetry Black


close up of two cans of letterpress ink

We’re packing up the shop. Box after box, day after day, week after week. All these years of talking about it and now we’re here, packing up the Stern & Faye Print Farm, wondering after each object and its potential destination. I don’t even have a shop of my own yet – that’s to come a year and a half later – but every time Jules holds up something and says “ya want it?” 

I say “yes!’

No different when we get to the ink shelf. This shelf that Chris built, utilitarian, just the right size for stacking 1 lb ink cans double high and two rows deep. We’re talking lots, and lots of ink. Mostly oil-based. Some of it’s been there for 20 years. Sure, crackly skin on the surface, but break that up and scrape it off with a decisive knife and there’s good ink underneath. Every time. Good ink.How many cans have I rescued and remedied in this way? I didn’t purchase a new can of ink until I’d had my own shop set up and running for a full six months. And what color was it? Black.

So we’re tossing ink cans in boxes, we’re laughing at the two cans of metallic purple, what job could put that to use? Several shelves are cleared off now and I start in on the next. After a few cans, I realize these are all black. And not only that, but they are all different brands and bases and shades of black. Wait – shades of black? I ask Jules. What’s up with all the black?

She says “oh you know. Chris was always in search of the perfect black. The perfect black for printing poetry that is. Crisp black text from metal type, on white paper. Anytime he found a new black he’d buy it, maybe try it just once, then toss it up on the shelf and forget about it. That one you’re holding – I think it’s been up there for 30 years. Didn’t pass muster.”

“Did he ever find the perfect black?” I am rapt now, pen poised over notebook.Turn

Turns out it’s a simple formula, one I didn’t need to write down. After 30 years of experimenting, Chris Stern settled on a 50/50 blend of Van Son #22011 Universal Printing Black and Daniel Smith Lithographic #100. Just the right blend of smooth and stiff, densest possible pigment, and as close to lightfast as you can get.

I nabbed every last can of that black ink, and have them sitting now on that same ink shelf in my shop. But when it came time to print ‘3 Blazes’ – my first poetry broadside commission at Expedition Press – I bought my very first brand new cans of ink.

Van Son #22011 and Dan Smith Litho #100.

Poetry black.